AFT - American Federation of Teachers

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AFT Resolutions


In 1992, the AFT Futures I report recognized that our changing membership and work environment required changing roles and responsibilities for the union. It called on AFT to make the transformation "from a union that has learned to represent our members' needs for fair rewards and decent working conditions,  [to] a union that is learning to further [members] aspirations for professional growth and empowerment at the workplace." In short, it called on the AFT to become a professional union, one that "is recognized by members and the public at large as dedicated both to the well-being of its members and to the people they serve."

A professional union defines its mission as enhancing both the profession and the practice of its members. Basing its actions on what is in its members' and the public's interest, a professional union understands that improving the institutions in which members work and the services they provide are the obligation and the responsibility of both union and management. It is a union that negotiates professional issues along with salary and working conditions. And it is a union that recognizes the need to work together with management, developing bonds of trust that will allow them both to set aside old issues and focus on improvement and quality.

Taking responsibility for professional issues and the delivery of professional development is central to professional unionism. The AFT recognizes that it has a responsibility to help members, both veteran and new, do their jobs more efficiently. High-quality professional development is the linchpin of improving practice. Research indicates that without continuous and effective opportunities to hone their craft, members will be less able to meet the expectations placed on them and less likely to stay in the profession.

Making the professional needs of members a union leader priority requires new roles for leadership. Depending on the situation, the union can do a number of things to assure that members have opportunities for high-quality professional development. They can:

  • Advocate-All leaders can advocate for high-quality professional development. With knowledge about what good professional development looks like, leaders will be able to make the case before policymaking bodies about ways in which effective professional development increases performance. In making this case, they will be able to argue more persuasively for increased funding, support and time for members to engage in professional development.
  • Broker-Most local and state leaders have, or can develop, the capacity to broker professional development for members with other organizations that offer such training. Assuming the role of broker enables the union to leverage existing programs to increase the array of professional opportunities available to members.
  • Collaborate-Working with partners, including employers, the union can expand the kinds of professional development it offers. The collaborator role relieves the union of the burden of financing professional development on its own or developing the wide range of professional offerings that members need while allowing the union to be a full partner in ensuring the quality of programs to which it attaches its name.
  • Deliver-Many local and state affiliates already offer their own union-created and funded professional development programs; however, union-sponsored programs are almost always funded through negotiated agreements with management and may be supplemented by monies from the union, private grants and the local, state or federal government.

Of course, not every local or state affiliate will be able to assume all of these roles. It takes time to reach the highest level of activity in each role. Selecting the role that is most appropriate to a local's capacity is the first step. All affiliates can assume one or more of these roles early on and then begin the task of increasing capacity. Everyone can do something.

But if union leaders are to be effective in these roles, they will require a new kind of leadership training. Our union leaders will need to develop and enhance skills that were useful but not essential in their more traditional roles. Along with honing negotiating skills, they must:

  • Become skilled at educating members on professional issues and their new roles in relationship with management. Members need to take control of their own professional development and create partnerships with management to ensure on-going quality professional development that meets their needs.
  • Become adept at enhancing positive labor-management relations even in the face of hostility and rejection from management. Leaders need to make these relationships not just cordial, but productive. They need the skills to approach interactions with hospital administrators, district superintendents or government managers from a strategic perspective, with a goal in mind and a plan for accomplishing this goal.
  • Learn how to build effective coalitions and partnerships with other groups and agencies having similar goals. The union cannot go it alone. It cannot be responsible for absorbing the costs associated with enhancing members' practice. Union leaders need to be able to develop partnerships and strategic alliances with other organizations and to work collaboratively with management to raise funds and develop programs around improved professional practice.
  • Become more effective communicators on professional issues, both to their members and to the public. Enhancing the role of the union with regard to professional development challenges conventional beliefs about what unions do. It challenges the public perception of unions as well as the views of some union members and potential members. Effectively making the case for the union's involvement requires well-developed communication skills and the ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances.
  • Become more involved in the decision making that affects their members. To do this, leaders must have a command of the professional issues that members face every day be they standards-based education, knowledge of new procedures, mastery of new technology, mandatory overtime, making choices when funds are tight and protecting budgets from random cuts and the like.
  • Know how to access and use analyses of state and/or district budgets to identify potential funding sources to address professional issues.
  • Become knowledgeable about professional development. They must know what the elements of high-quality professional development are and which policies will make continuous professional improvement for members possible. They must be armed with adequate information so they can be the first line of defense against shoddy programs and ill-conceived policies. They should be prepared to:
    • Advocate for high-quality professional development and, where feasible, involve the union in offering it;
    • Make strategic professional development choices linked both to members' and client needs;
    • Negotiate new contract provisions, or other labor-management agreements, that provide time, support, resources and incentives for members to engage in effective professional learning; and
    • Find means to dedicate the necessary resources to make professional development a centerpiece of union efforts to improve professional practice.

The union cannot secure high-quality professional development for our members alone, and we shouldn't have to. We can secure quality professional development if our leaders integrate professional issues into their work and develop partners who will fund and assist in delivering high-quality services to our members:

RESOLVED, that the AFT believe that the union at all levels should elevate professional issues generally, and professional development specifically, to a more prominent role in the organization. We also believe that the union must support members as they improve their professional practice as it becomes part of our core mission. Achieving this vision will require a comprehensive, unionwide, sustained partnership among the national organization and its state and local affiliates.

Therefore, the AFT will:

  • Develop structures to assure that helping to enhance the practice of our members permeates everything we do as an organization, from negotiating contracts to developing state legislation to choosing our professional partners. Professional issues generally and professional development in particular must be seen as fundamental to union work as are organizing, negotiating contracts, servicing grievances and engaging in political action.
  • Undertake a thorough internal organizational review to better align internal structures and practices with an enhanced commitment to professional issues and professional development.
  • Develop and implement new or expanded training programs for union leaders and staff that will enable them to integrate professional issues and professional development into the core of their union work.
  • Review and expand AFT professional development efforts in every AFT constituency.
  • Disseminate information about recognized, research-based professional development practices and programs (such as ER&D) to assist state federations and locals in their roles as advocates, brokers, collaborators and deliverers of professional development.
  • Use technology to increase leaders' and members' access to, and communication about, professional issues and professional development.
  • Increase the capacity of the union to be effective in the area of professional issues/professional development by expanding current partnerships and developing new strategic alliances.
  • These recommendations provide a framework for the union as we collectively strive to shape a culture of professional unionism that retains the principles on which the AFT was founded. We understand that context and circumstances matter. Not all locals or state affiliates will be able to implement every recommendation, but every local can be aware of this issue and incorporate it some way in its work.